Eakins, Thomas (American, 1844-1916)

The Gross Clinic

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Samuel Gross (1805-1884) was Co-Chair of the Department of Surgery at Jefferson Medical College from 1882-1889 and author of a standard surgical textbook. Here he performs surgery for osteomyelitis, in a procedure that does not incorporate the antiseptic technique recently developed by Joseph Lister—Gross said, “Little faith is placed by any enlightened surgeon on this side of the Atlantic in the so-called carbolic treatment of Lister.” The surgeon stands apart from everyone else in an heroic presentation that depicts the nineteenth-century American ideal of pragmatism, which held that heroism is earned by what you do rather than inherited as part of who you are. In this case, heroism is represented by the surgeon’s scalpel rather than by something like a king’s crown. Thomas Eakins attended many of Dr. Gross’s lectures on anatomy, surgery, and orthopedics, and had been present at scenes like this, sitting with the rows of students watching and taking notes in the amphitheater. When the city of Philadelphia hosted the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, with the major themes advertised as advancements in American science and art, Eakins submitted this painting, which satisfied both fields. However, it was rejected by the jury selecting for the art pavilion because it did not satisfy Victorian ideas of what art should be: there was visible blood; the operating room was considered no place for a woman; the tones were too dark; and the bright spots that did exist drew attention to more horror—the pink towel to the surgical instruments, and the blue socks to the bloody incision. Dr. Gross intervened, and the painting was shown in the exposition—in the US Army Post pavilion with displays of modern medical equipment and techniques. When Jefferson wanted to sell this painting in 2007 and Alice Walton of Walmart made a bid, the city of Philadelphia protested and raised enough funds to keep it—it’s now jointly owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the PA Academy of Fine Arts. Dr. Gross was one of the first to present lectures on morbid anatomy in the United States, and in 1839 published his second text called Elements of Pathological Anatomy, which went through three editions. In 1867 he served on a committee that passed a resolution of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia calling for the state to pass the Anatomy Act of Pennsylvania. Gross was a founder of the American Medical Association and founder and first president of the American Surgical Association. He died in 1884, and was one of first high-profile individuals to specify cremation in his will—his choice was the topic of numerous newspaper articles. After the funeral, his body was taken to Washington, PA to the first crematory opened in the United States—in 1876 by fellow Jefferson alum Dr. F. Julius LeMoyne. Notes by Dr. Linda Pessar and Mariann Smith. Image credit: www.philamuseum.org
History of Medicine
Art of Medicine
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum of Art